Why Goal-Setting Can Leave You Miserable

Does winning make you happy?

There are really only two reasons to set a goal: instrumental reasons and experiential reasons.

When you set a goal for instrumental reasons, it is because the object of the goal will improve your happiness, lifestyle or contribute to some larger purpose.

For example, if you’re incredibly overweight, changing your lifestyle may add several years to your life. And if you see living as a good thing, as I do, that gives pretty strong instrumental reasons to set the goal.

The alternative is to set a goal for experiential reasons. This is where the process of setting and striving towards a goal will improve your happiness, lifestyle or contribute to some larger purpose.

For example, if you’re already in decent shape, increasing your benchpress won’t significantly change your happiness. However, you may enjoy the training, having the additional challenge makes life more exciting and the determination may make you a better person. Benchpressing 200lbs has few instrumental reasons for setting the goal, but may have strong experiential reasons.

Don’t Confuse Instrumental with Experiential Reasons!

Few goals are divided neatly like the examples above. Some you’ll pursue for a mix of experiential and instrumental reasons.

Take this business I’m building, for example. For instrumental reasons I have the possibility to work full-time for myself, not needing a job, which if my past experiences are to be trusted, would increase my happiness.

However, it also has strong experiential reasons. I enjoy running this business, and it constantly challenges me and forces me to improve myself. Even if I never reached my ultimate goal of a full-time income, the experience itself would have given many benefits, both in the moment and for the future.

The temptation in cases like this is to assume the two reasons are the same. After all, we don’t chase goals saying that we’re pursuing it for 30% instrumental reasons and 70% for experiential reasons. We simply feel the motivation to chase. Where that motivation comes from is often disguised.

The danger, is that by confounding the two reasons, you may make yourself miserable. Instead of reaping the benefits of instrumental goals, or even the process of experiential ones, you get neither.

Most Seemingly Instrumental Goals Aren’t

In a recent TEDTalk, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, explains that money does not buy happiness:

We looked at how feelings vary with income, and it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans, … people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get.

Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness.

So, unless you’re in poverty, or your income goal is necessary in some other goal (like switching to a business full-time), most income goals are not instrumental.

I found it interesting, after reading Neil Strauss’s cult-hit, The Game, that many of the people he documented became no happier after learning to pick up women. In fact, many of them became disillusioned and depressed.

Kahneman’s talk also made me wonder how many people want to travel obsessively because they enjoy it, or because the ability to travel obsessively has become a luxury status-symbol, like a Rolex or a Lexus?

Do we deceive ourselves into claiming to pursue goals for instrumental reasons (like money or sex) when their realization doesn’t improve our life? Do we deceive ourselves equally when pursuing goals for experiential reasons (like travel) which may have deeper instrumental motivations we wouldn’t want to accept?

Untangling the Web of Wants

Naive goal-setting tells people to go after what they want. And 80% of the time, I think this is good advice. Goal-setting often has both experiential and instrumental benefits. Achieving goals often improves your life, and even when it doesn’t, the mere act of striving towards goals will usually make you a better person.

My question is what happens in the other 20%?

I believe the only way to avoid the trap is to spend more time untangling the instrumental from the experiential reasons in our daily life. If we at least know why we think we’re pursuing a goal, we can correct for errors.

A Personal Example of Untangling

Over the last several months, I’ve done some effort to untangle my motivations in physical fitness.

I’m not a world-class athlete, but in most respects, I’m in good physical shape. I’m 5’11”, 160 lbs, I can easily run 10 km and I can do ten one-arm pushups in a row. I’m at a point where almost every fitness goal I set can’t really be justified on instrumental reasons.

However, because I’ve never met someone who has ever said to themselves, “done!” with an area of their life, I sometimes get new ideas for goals with my physical health. Maybe I could put on another 10-15lbs of muscle, or train to complete a one-arm chin up.

From an experiential perspective, these goals are still valid. The lesson here is that I make sure I catch myself whenever I start using instrumental reasons to justify setting the goal. Whenever I say to myself that adding muscle would make me more attractive, it would increase my energy levels or it would make me happier, I need to stop myself.

Because, it doesn’t take a lot of reasoning to realize those reasons aren’t particularly compelling. If I do decide to pursue one of these goals, it should be for the benefits associated with striving itself, such as enjoying the challenge or increasing my self-discipline.

Separate Your Motivations Before Starting a Project

Would you pursue a goal differently if you knew winning wouldn’t change your long-term happiness?

I believe the answer is yes.

That doesn’t mean the goal isn’t worth pursuing at all. You may become happier in the process of attaining the goal, even if the final step adds nothing to that process.

But it does mean you should be aware of the different reasons for pursuing a goal. Before starting a project, write down all the motivations you have for starting. Split those into two sections: the benefits of striving for the goal, and the benefits from achieving the results themselves.

Then you can ask yourself whether the reasons are valid, and maybe become a bit wiser about whether accomplishing the goal will actually improve your life.

  • giulio maraviglia

    impressing timing on this post.
    tomorrow i’ll face an exam for which i’m strongly instrumentally motivated (it’s due for getting my graduation) but awfully demotivated and bored on the experiencial side (fluffy information, completely useless, rote-memorization-based).

    i think i’ll turn it experientially interesting by making it an experiment in self discipline.

  • JP

    Wow! Excellent article Scott. This was a real eye opener for me. There have been some goals that I feel like I should achieve and yet I haven’t had the motivation to see them through. Now I realize that these goals won’t help me enjoy my life more but are things I feel are expected of me by others. Looks like I need to reevaluate a few things. Thanks.

  • Ian K

    Having just started the “BetterMan” marathon I never realised why I wanted to run any marathon. I can still hear the starting gun.

    And now I wander in the alley of Dowbte. Even though I have this feeling of knowing why I am sweating for this one, what about the others?

    If a race has the experiental argument of discovering a new city and having a good time is it worth it? Perhaps only a change of air makes it of value.

  • Ulrik


    More or less, this is the exact distinction Aristotle made for all actions. In fact, Scott, having read your blog for a couple of weeks I’d suggest you go take a look at the ethical writings of Aristotle, including his thoughts on typology of action, how to acquire skills, ways to lead a happy life etc.

    You seem in sync 😉



  • Josh

    Scott, great post! Timely for me, and helpful. I’m spending a semester living in Lebanon, attending a university here. I set a lot of goals, and intentionally allowed myself to set goals higher than I expected to achieve. Then I wondered why I was feeling disappointed for not making progress on some of them as I had hoped.

    Separating experiential from instrumental is the key. Thank you for your encouragement!

    What got my attention, though, was your personal example of physical fitness. You are obviously “in shape” (as hard as that is to define. Is it defined by not being “out of shape”? Is it based on muscle mass, or eating habits? Fast twitch muscles, or slow?)

    You are living in France right now- France just happens to be a spot famous the world ’round for rock climbing. If you are interested in experiential and instrumental goals for physical fitness, I think climbing could be a nice hobby. It rewards incremental increases in strength and technique (every climb is graded based on how hard it is- as you improve, you can climb harder grades. Pretty helpful for monitoring improvement.)

    It’s also a sport that takes you beyond typical playing fields and outside of gyms. You get to spend some time in beautiful landscapes (Rock walls generally afford beautiful views) and, as you improve in your climbing, you improve your fitness.

    I’ll state my bias here: I work at a large climbing gym in the US, I’ve been climbing for some years now, I’ve competed, guided, instructed, coached climbing. When I was young, other sports didn’t interest me. (I still am young, I guess. I’m 21.)

    France is full of climbing gyms. Just look online for one near you, take a friend with you, go to the gym. Sign up for a belay class (that will teach you how to put on harnesses, tie knots, and manage the ropes for each other.) It’s a sport that is very much unlike any other sport.

    It’s also incredibly good for building strength. Not muscle mass, but strength. You’ll feel sore in muscles you didn’t know you had.

    I’ll stop endlessly supporting my own sport, now. I hope you look into it!

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    This is pretty cool. I haven’t separated the interests for a goal like this before. There certainly is the part involved with going for the goal, which can be a long period of time, and then there is the time when results have been acquired, which can also be a long period of time. It makes sense to look at both of those. We usually only focus on the results, even if the striving portion would taking many months. We like to think that the striving portion will end sooner than later.

    That point about how amounts of wealth above a certain threshold doesn’t create much more enjoyment sure is something to point out to those who have huge profit plans, and get depressed when things don’t work out. Being disappointed for something irrelevant is a loss of energy.

    I like that you point out some things that I didn’t think of in detail.

  • Scott Scanlon

    Part of the goal is the journey. I have to agree knowing why we are moving towards our goal is important. This also drives why we get up in the morning and push through the days when we make little or no progress at all. Your point of travel is well taken. I’ve seen this first hand with people I know. I’m still in the camp that goal setting is not the answer but more the direction that works for some.

  • Rishi @ Self Improvement Expla

    I like the differentiation of instrumental and experiential. It helps clarify (I assume for many, including myself) and differentiate what actually can make us happy.

    Great article…


  • Sid Savara

    Hey Scott,

    Loved this point –

    “Would you pursue a goal differently if you knew winning wouldn’t change your long-term happiness?”

    It reminds me of one of my favorite songs, and here I’m going to reveal something – I am a Miley Cyrus fan. Some people may think it’s cheesy, but I really love her song Climb –

    “There’s always gonna be another mountain […]
    Ain’t about how fast I get there
    Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side
    It’s the climb”

    And that to me is what it’s all about – not necessarily just about what’s waiting on the other side or reaching the top. It’s about the climb =)

  • Mark Cancellieri

    Great post. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, although not with with the labels “instrumental” and “experiential.”

    I think one of the main reasons that people don’t reach most of their goals is because they are focused on the instrumental, but not the experiential. By this I mean that they really want the result, but they don’t enjoy the process. For example, they might want the *result* of going on a diet, but they don’t want the discomfort of the diet.

    This is why I have been trying to think of ways to achieve outcomes while enjoying the process. If we enjoy the process, our avoidance mechanism won’t be triggered. Instead, we will be drawn to it.

  • Scott Young


    I would agree. It is far easier to have patience and determination on an experientially motivated goal than an instrumentally motivated one.


    I have thought about rock climbing, my long-time fear of heights non-withstanding, it is definitely something I would like to try.


    All great ideas aren’t new. All new ideas aren’t great. I think there’s a quote about something like that, some I’m not surprised at all that Aristotle beat me to the punch over two millennium ago.

  • BHud

    Interesting post. I’ve just started to do some goal setting in my life, in effort to make myself more focused and engaged with the world, instead of letting it slip by. I make myself answer “Why Am I Doing This?” for every goal I have, and this post will help me organize my goals and pursue them in perhaps better ways.

    From my experience, I think the reason most people aren’t happy with their lives is because they have no goals. They work the same job, have the same friends, do the same activities…they have no challenge. Look at the popularity of video games and computer games like Farmville and Second Life- they provide instant, unique challenges with instant rewards. I like that you referenced The Game- when picking up chicks was no longer a challenge, it lost its luster.

    I also think its important to remember that after you complete one goal, you need a new goal. This is something I think a lot of people forget. I also think its one of the reasons why video games are so popular- they are always offering new challenges. (I’m not anti video games. I see a lot of people playing them instead of engaging in new experiences in the real world. Video games, like anything else, are great when used in moderation.)

  • Tresna

    A great post Scott. I like the idea of questioning our motivation for setting certain goals. I relate to JP’s comment about setting goals merely because there are outside influences to do so, rather than being guided by our own passions. I’ll be taking a look at my own goals and asking myself if they fall in to the instrumental or experiential camp.

  • Duff

    Excellent clear distinctions here.

    I think the problem gets further complicated however, for culturally there are great social rewards for winning competitive games. Winning thus becomes an experiential goal for it feels good to win, to be the best, to be praised for one’s achievement over others. Winners of competitive games get pulled into feedback loops, like being famous for being famous (e.g. many book authors do massive launches for Amazon.com to appear at the #1 slot for one day, thus increasing the likelihood of entering a fame feedback loop). Being ranked #1 for an SEO phrase on Google gets far more traffic than #2, and so on down the line.

    Winning a competitive game often comes down to micro-differences in skill (along with a hearty dose of luck), hence why pro athletes train continuously for their sport.

    Being the best may also have evolutionary psychological reasons. Losing social status means one is less likely to get food, shelter, sex, etc., leading to depression. There is also research suggesting that “alpha” apes have higher levels of serotonin–perhaps *because of* their higher status. Hence why “pick-up artists” always teach men to be “alpha.”

    I think this is a good reason to have a specialty, an area that you pour your heart and soul into, while also having a broad base among many areas (what they used to call being “well-rounded”). It is also a good reason to change the economic game to be more equitable and less hyper-competitive wherever possible, balancing competition with cooperation optimally.

  • Scott Young


    I won’t deny the competitive necessity of being at your best in a particular field. That’s an added complication I didn’t mention in the article.

    For example, with the skills I’ve centered my life around, writing and entrepreneurship, there might not directly be a strong instrumental incentive for going from 95% to 99% skill, but because of competitive pressures, unless I get to 99.99% skill, I’ll be left behind by the numerous other people who have beaten me.

    However, I don’t believe this competitive situation is the same in all cases. Since I have no intentions of becoming an athlete or requiring excellent physical fitness for a particular reason, going from being in “great shape” to “world class athlete” doesn’t have many instrumental benefits, so I need to be careful if those are my claimed reasons for pursuing it.


  • Elizabeth

    I liked this point too:
    “Would you pursue a goal differently if you knew winning wouldn’t change your long-term happiness?”

    However, I do want to point out that $60,000 is 150% of the median American income. In other words, the people above this “money doesn’t increase happiness” line are a distinct minority of the U.S. population.

  • Scott Young


    I noticed that too. He made it as an off-hand comment during the speech, so I’m not sure whether this was household or personal income. That would make a difference.

    However, the real question isn’t whether $60,000 is above the average, but whether it is above your average. My thinking is that the blog readers as a whole tend to be better educated with higher earning expectations, so it is more relevant.

    Gregg Easterbrook pointed out a similar study which found happiness decouples from income within a nation at around $15,000. That is, the average happiness of the population doesn’t change after median income exceeds this amount (which is far less than Kahneman’s figure).


  • Craig Thomas

    Nice post. I’ve never thought of separating with experiential and instrumental before, interesting concept. Although, we do have the same goal – to earn a full income online. I can see the benefits of thinking differently around it.

  • Randy

    Wow.. you are quite tall too, Mr Young.
    Most nerds don’t have fit body like you.

  • Topi

    I really like the idea of questioning why

  • Topi

    I really like the idea of questioning the motivation behind a goal. Until now I’ve just seen goals generally as being good things, fullstop. But I can see that if you understand the motivation behind a goal you have a better insight into what you are trying to achieve with that goal.

  • noneed

    Boring article. Learn something from Seth, write short, to the point articles. Dont bore people to death

  • Dan

    Love the picture of Keeneland Racecource in Lexington, KY

  • Johanna

    I really resonate with this post. It was very insightful. But I have an idea to improve our self goal for instrumental reasons and experiential reasons. Recently I came across one iPhone app called Pocket coach. It was really good to use. 22 daily exercises are designed explicitly to accelerate the goal-achieving process . You can even check out here http://itunes.apple.com/us/app

  • Richard | RichardShelmerdine.c

    I’m definitely an experiental goal setter mainly. I love just setting goals to see what will happen. Have fun with your goals. Don’t say write 3 posts a week say Be in creative flow as often as I can.